Monday, 12 December 2011

Involuntary Sterilization: Never Again

Several feminist bloggers have recently written about a story out of Tanzania involving the involuntary sterilization of a woman with several children.  As an American doctors helped her to deliver another child, there was a problem with the epidural injection, and the woman stopped
breathing. The American doctor did chest compressions to save her life. Another doctor performed a tubal ligation, saying, "I think she does not need another baby after this." The American doctor later called the second doctor's actions "heroic"

Not Acceptable

When the story broke on the "Femnomics" blog, he defended his stance on the second doctor's actions by saying that it had to do with realities of life in remote parts of the world and that the sterilization was done with the risks in mind of what could happen if the woman got  pregnant again. But all I could think about was large group of women who were sterilized "for their own good".

(Read the whole story on the Tanzania sterilization here, plus the American doctor's defense of his actions, here:

Involuntary Sterilization in North American News

Meanwhile, North Carolina is currently trying to decide how much monetary compensation is owed to the 7600 people that its Eugenics Boards declared should be sterilized involuntarily between 1933 and 1977. According to a recent New York Times articles (, 31 states had such eugenics programs. They were  "an experiment in genetic engineering once considered a legitimate way to keep welfare rolls small, stop poverty and improve the gene pool." The "feeble-minded", or people with intellectual disabilities or mental conditions, were often targets.

Not that America has the monopoly on the this. Forced sterilization was widespread in Canadian institutions for decades.  Even after the eugenics argument had fallen from favour, sterilization for women was still favoured as a way to them and the women who support them handle menstruation easily, as birth control, and as a way to protect them from abuse (see for a discussion of this).

Not Enough

North Carolina is currently proposing that the each person that was forcibly sterilized be given $20 000. I don't think it'll surprise anyone where I stand on this. There's a scene in the film "Erin Brockovitch", which (in case there's anyone left out there who hasn't seen it), deals with a lawsuit over a town's water that's got a cancer-causing compound in it, courtesy of a very large company. When the lawyers are trying to hammer out a settlement for each citizen that's been affected, Erin says, (and I'm paraphrasing), "I'd like you to consider what your kidneys mean to you...or your ovaries...or your kid's health...and times that by a million...and then come back with an offer. Anything else is insulting."

I think that's the kind of consideration that's needed here. These people need to go home and look at their kids' baby pictures, and think about how they would feel if the choice to mother or father that child was taken away from them without their consent (and quite possibly even their knowledge). And think about just what that sterilization was intended to do. And multiply whatever number they come up by another, substantial number. Then they might be getting close to a reasonable settlement.

And put the laws in place so that this never happens to anyone else again.

Anything else is insulting.


  1. The civil libertarian in me stands firmly against the practice of involuntary sterilization. This is a very difficult topic with lot of arguments relating to so called "welfare mothers" who are having more and more children to stay on benefits (supposedly).
    Asking the hard questions as usual Sarah!


  2. great post, Sarah!

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  4. Nellie McClung and others of the 'famous five' helped create the Alberta Eugenics Board, and then after Nellie moved to BC, the one in BC, which also operated until the mid-70's. Alberta's was so successful that Hitler sent 'experts' to get advice on his programs of a purer nation. And in 1986 a Canadian mother took her own daughter to court saying that she had the right to force her daughter to be sterilized against her will.

    The Danes sterilized women with lower IQ's until the early 80's and in the late 90's, China brought forced sterilization BACK as a national policy.

    As for the US, on the reservations, doctors were telling first nation females that they were getting tonsils out or when getting other operations done, they would sterilize them, 'for their own good'. It was an 'understood' policy of those who look over us, the doctors (and the Indian Affairs B.)

    Sadly, we don't have laws to stop governments from doing this, only legal prescedent from those who lost when desiring to do it (in the US, they used to castrate males in prison in many states until a suit that it was 'cruel and unusual punishment'). We all bear the shame of governments and other agencies who do or want to do this, primarily to women and first nation individuals. I'm glad people can be horrified. Will they still be so after looking at their own government in the mirror?

  5. I've known for a long time that the Canadian government did this. Some of the particulars, I didn't know until I was researching until I did some research for this article. But I knew that policies were enacted that allowed for involuntary sterilization of vulnerable people.

    It's made me feel sick to my stomach for a long's part of the reason why I wanted to blog about it.

    It's one of those things that makes me feel ashamed to be human..

  6. Perhaps I react to it more because she is my aunt or great aunt, I guess. And it is like having Himmler or the like as a family member. Yes, she worked very hard to ensure that those of the none white race did not vote, that those who were of a different religion (Hudderites) had laws enacted against them by the Alberta Parliment in order to stop them from entering Alberta or staying there. She was charismatic, and articulate, and had a very strong idea of what kind of women should vote and which should be allowed to have children (which is kind of a lesbian issue, or was in the UK when the Royal college found that lesbians had set up 'men not included' a sperm delivery service and demanded that they MUST have authority to determine that those who get IVF are of the 'right' type). We should keep her and the five on the $50, as she is who we are.

    I guess we can't choose our family, as Terry Fox, when he called to tell his mother the cancer was back hung up on him, "I didn't need to hear that." she said.

  7. She may be a relative, but she is not you. You would never take the positions that she took - anyone who knows you knows this. And there's nothing you can do about her choices.

    Focus on doing what you do already - be a force for positive change in the world with your words and with the life you lead. I guarantee that you're going to leave a better legacy than she did.